A Christian theology professor tries to answer the question that's dominated conversations in bars, dorm rooms, and the pages of ESPN.
Tim Tebow succeeds on the football field because of elves.
You can't see them on television. They're tiny. But when the game gets tight and the Denver Broncos need a fourth-quarter miracle, the elves come out and do his bidding. Forming a dense pack, they push 350-pound lineman aside, knock defensive backs off their stride, and give speed to Demayrius Thomas after he catches a pass.
That's why he wins.
What? You don't buy that? It's a lie, you're right. You know Tebow doesn't accomplish what he does because of elves. But when you hear about his faith, and the connection that some make between his devout Christianity and the success he enjoys on the football field, you might think it's about as likely that Tebow succeeds because of God's direct and benevolent intervention as it is that he wins games because of a roaming band of miniature wood elves.
Both sound ridiculous. God doesn't care about football games, right? If he exists at all, isn't he up there making sure that the planets spin in their proper orbits and, I don't know, that there's enough rainwater falling on Argentinean forests? Doesn't he have better things to do than to propel a certain football team to victories?
As someone who teaches theology to college students, and so is used to winning unlikely attention from the bleary-eyed and skeptical, let me try to answer this question, for several months now the fodder not merely of church youth groups, but of bars, dorm rooms, and the front pages of serious sports sites like ESPN and Bill Simmons's Grantland.
THE DOCTRINE OF PROVIDENCE
The doctrine of providence is a 50-cent phrase from Christian theology. It's basically the idea that God directs all things that happen in this world according to his wise counsel and for the ends, the purposes, that will bring him the most glory. If you've had a class in theology or remember, say, the sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards (we read it in my Maine public high school, and you may have too), then you may know that this particular idea caused a ruckus throughout history.
MORE ON TIM TEBOW
In the 16th century, guys like Martin Luther, the Tim Tebow of his day (the Pope said he was "like a bull in the church's vineyard," an apt description for Tebow's running style), and John Calvin kick-started what was historically called the "Reformation." This epochal period, which featured the Catholic Church contra mundum and included such hilariously-named religious incidents as the "affair of the sausages," saw a massive rise in interest in God's control over all things, including salvation, the life of Christians, and, well, everything. Medieval Catholicism offered Ye Olde Peasant a worldview in which they cooperated with God to earn salvation; Reformational Protestantism suggested that nothing could thwart the will of God and that salvation came only through divine fiat.
Luther and Calvin drew upon the teachings of Jesus in formulating the doctrine of providence. In the course of arguing with Pharisees, as he seemed to always be doing, Jesus taught that God superintended everything, including even the most ordinary animals of his creation, like the sparrow. "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?," he asked a hostile crowd. "And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matt. 10:29). In other words, God ordains—or decides—when the sparrow dies and when it lives. According to Scripture, this is true also of what king rules when, how many hairs grow on our heads, and every twist and turn our lives on this fragile sphere take (see Prov. 16:33; 21:1; Matt. 10:30).
BACK TO FOOTBALL
But enough about sausages and Reformers and sparrows—what about Tim Tebow? Does he win because God miraculously propels him to victory? Is the "hand of God," as footballer Diego Maradonna famously called it, directing his passes (or at least his fourth-quarter attempts)?
Yes and no. The Bible says that God oversees everything that happens in this world. He ordains what socks we put on in the morning, how burnt our toast is, what we think about in the day, and everything in between. All things happen "according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will," as the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 1:11. So does that include Tim Tebow and his playmaking? Yes, it surely does.
But, as you can see, this is saying less than you might initially think. I believe that God is overseeing all of Tebow's passes, but he's also overseeing the typing and reading of this paragraph. He's overseeing the Denver Broncos, but he's also overseeing the Boston Celtics (much as it may seem otherwise at present), the Museum of Modern Art, and the playtime of your nephew. He's in control of all things. In this sense, which is called "secondary" causation (God's oversight of all things), the Lord is directing Tebow's life.
But is God directly intervening on the football field in the same way that, for example, he did to cause the virgin birth of Luke 2 (in what is called "primary causation")? That I don't know. It's not clear to my human eyes how this all shakes out. I do know that the Lord is working everything out according to his wise and mysterious counsel which, try as we might, we cannot fully understand.
I can say from the Bible that God oversees the lives of his people, of those who trust the death of Christ for their life in heaven, with special concern. According to his Word, God is carrying out a mission of salvation (John 3:16; Rom. 10; Eph. 1). He has a special interest in directing the lives of his people so that in every endeavor, in myriad fields, they bring him glory. That's why Paul said to Christians, "whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). Life affords countless opportunities to simultaneously speak the gospel and live in a distinctly Christian way and thereby advance the kingdom further.
Tim Tebow was given natural and freakish athletic ability. He also has tremendous character and seemingly strong faith, gifts that, according to the Bible, only God can give. We know from 1 Corinthians 1 that God delights to make foolish "the wisdom of the world," showing that God, and not only rappers and rock stars, has a subversive side, too (1 Cor. 1:20). It may be that God is working through the miraculous feats of Tebow on the field to draw attention to his own glory. God is regularly pleased to do such things, it seems, whether that means rebuking upper-crust Anglicans or bloated Bible-belt Baptists by raising up believers in massive numbers in marginalized regions of the world or by giving favor to politicians and accountants and homemakers who nobody else deemed worthy.
So yes, God may be directly—not generally—working in his wise providence to bless Tim Tebow (for which the Denver Broncos organization is no doubt much obliged!). But this is not altogether clear. Two things are clear to me, though. First, whatever God does is best. Second, in certain times he grants unusual favor to his people, as biblical episodes like the life of Joseph show (see Genesis 37-50). Most of us muddle along, living unspectacular yet meaningful lives in God's sight, but some are appointed by God for unusual service and prominence.
WHAT ABOUT THE PATRIOTS?
But what happens when Tebow loses? What happens if my New England Patriots, a team I have loved since Dave Meggett was getting stuffed on every punt return and Drew Bledsoe was completing cannon-like passes to more sideline coaches than receivers, steamroll the Broncos, as they did earlier in the season? Has God capriciously retracted his blessing on this All-American golden-boy, who runs like a lion yet speaks like a Sunday-school teacher?
This is easier than your average late-night philosophical chat in the college lounge might make it seem. The Bible teaches that no believer is assured an easy road. In other words, contrary to what health-and-wealth teachers like Joel Osteen say (to the tune of massive earnings), God nowhere promises to unendingly bless his people in worldly terms. On the contrary, it seems from biblical texts like Hebrews 11:35-38 that Christians will know considerable suffering in this world. Speaking of the most faithful leaders of the historic church—not the bad boys and girls of the Bible who would seem to deserve pain—the author says of their earthly sojourn that
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
This is an incredible reality. It's why I have heard famed pastor and apologist Tim Keller of Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church say, to a wealthy evangelical audience, "Suffering will get you" (see pages 22-34 in his excellent book The Reason for God for more on this subject). There is no way to avoid it as a Christian.
What does this mean in light of a possible Broncos loss on Saturday? It means that there is no reason to believe that God has failed Tebow, that the light of the divine in Tebow's life is extinguished. God's Spirit, directed by God's will, blows like the wind where it wishes (John 3:8). It may be that Tebow will succeed in spectacular fashion; it may be that he will have the worst game of his life. Either way, the Bible assures us that God loves his chosen, God is orchestrating every detail of their lives, and God will lead them through success or failure to the end of all things. Sometimes God grants believers great victories, and sometimes he asks them to walk through the fire. This is true whether it is experienced on the football field, in the office, or in a country that rewards outspoken Christianity with a sword to the throat.
Perhaps this sounds like a cop-out, as weird as the mystical, linebacker-thwarting wood elves I introduced earlier. But if it does, remember the one whom Christians worship. Jesus Christ was the Son of God in human form. He did not come to earth to be lauded, though, but to serve and to suffer (Mark 10:45). It was the will of God to bruise him, and through his vicarious death and life-giving resurrection to make a way to heaven for fallen mankind.
There is no greater reminder than this that God uses suffering in the lives of believers to accomplish his will. Whether, as with Joseph, he grants Christians incredible accomplishment and wealth, or whether, as with Job, he leads them steadily through the valley of the shadow of death, he loves them all the same. Sometimes, we remember, it is through tremendous hardship, suffering even to the point of death, that his people gain the greatest victories.
That is the message of the cross, where an innocent man was crucified, naked and gasping, on behalf of the guilty. It is the lodestar of every Christian, the confession that no one can stymie, whether we make our way through life as a mailman, a child with Down's syndrome, or a football star.